Joyce McMillan: Break the mind forged manacles

The women-only carriage row is a distraction from the fight for real freedoms, writes Joyce McMillan
An elderly Indian woman takes advantage of women-only carriages in Mumbai. Picture: PAAn elderly Indian woman takes advantage of women-only carriages in Mumbai. Picture: PA
An elderly Indian woman takes advantage of women-only carriages in Mumbai. Picture: PA

On stage at the Underbelly, in Edinburgh’s Cowgate, Penny Arcade – sometime queen of the New York underground, now a blazing 65 years old – is on something of a roll. Her show is hard to define: not theatre, not comedy, but a kind of political address with fierce background music, a passionate call to defend what she sees as our dwindling freedom to do, and be, what we damn well choose.

Her concerns include gentrification, not only of city streets but of the mind. She mourns the appropriation of once-radical cultural movements by mainstream commercial culture. She says real pleasure is fast becoming a radical value, so deeply joyless is our materialistic lifestyle. And one of her pet hates, too, is the over-protective culture of the “trigger warning”, under which many universities and colleges have taken to labelling great works of literature with little warnings, alerting a cosseted generation of students to the fact that they contain scenes of sex, war, violence, injustice and controversy, and may therefore upset them a bit.

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So it’s perhaps not surprising that Penny Arcade’s show leapt back to mind, this week, when I noticed – with some disbelief – the huge amounts of media coverage given to Jeremy Corbyn’s remark that following representations from some women’s groups, he might consider introducing women-only carriages on trains. The debate came as a particular shock to me because for the last three decades, as a theatre critic covering the whole of Scotland, I have spent much of my life travelling on trains, either at the early-evening rush hour or late at night; and on the basis of my largely untroubled experience, the idea that women need to be protected from the other half of humanity by being consigned to their own railway carriages seems a truly preposterous over-reaction to what must, for most women travellers, be a problem very rarely encountered, and easily dealt with.

I don’t, of course, under-rate the wider problem of sexual harassment, particularly when it arises in the workplace, with an implicit threat of loss of livelihood if victims fail to comply. But harassment in public places, if it is a widespread problem, clearly needs to be dealt with by tackling the attitudes of the men who do the harassing, not by effectively excluding lone women from public space. As the dissident Tory MP Sarah Wollaston put it, measures such as women-only carriages only normalise unacceptable attitudes; and in countries where women are segregated on public transport, their separation is a marker for disempowerment, not safety.

What’s interesting, though – and this is where Penny Arcade comes in – is the insidious process by which we have become the kind of society that wastes time, energy and media coverage on this kind of reactionary nonsense, while largely ignoring – for example – the many more significant proposals, on everything from the economy to Trident, that have emerged from the Corbyn campaign. And the key to this process – not unrelated to Penny’s “gentrification of the mind” – must be the systematic promotion of fear, as one of the key driving emotions of ordinary middle-class life. Both politicians and commercial interests – not to mention the media, which knows that fear sells – have a huge vested interest in encouraging high levels of fear, since it can be used both as a mechanism of political control, and as an unbeatable marketing tool, encouraging us to buy all sorts of things we don’t need in order to protect ourselves from hazards that barely exist.

Statistics show, for example, that people in Britain routinely overestimate the prevalence of certain kinds of crime by a factor of ten, 20 or more; so that no sooner had Jeremy Corbyn’s comment hit the streets, than the whine of 21st century received opinion could be heard rising from the vox pop interviews. “Oh yes, it helps women to travel safely, then of course it’s a good idea.”

It never seems to occur to the obedient citizens who make this kind of remark that measures which increase “safety” are not always a good idea: not if they insult the entire male half of the population, not if they return women to Victorian levels of restriction on their movement, not if they make public buildings into fortresses, not if they reduce the once-pleasant experience of air travel to an obvious cash-cow for big security companies employing armies of authoritarian functionaries, and not if they put our democratically-elected politicians forever out of reach, behind ranks of gates and cordons and sullen security staff. We say we care for freedom, in western societies; but we seem increasingly unable to grasp the basic truth that freedom entails risk; and that to allow our otherwise increasingly powerless governments to enact endless petty measures designed to eliminate risk, is to sacrifice freedoms we may never be able to regain.

Penny Arcade’s life, by contrast, has been one long roller-coaster ride of the creative and unpredictable, characterised by a lively contempt for the mind-games played – with us and against us – by those in power. And among the things she knows is that perhaps the only way of smashing the bonds placed on our minds by the society in which we live is to listen to the music, watch the films, hear the poetry, see the live performance, that has to reach towards the raw edge of truth in order to work at all; asked recently how she thought the new forces of social control could be resisted, she replied:

“I believe in love, I believe in anger, and I believe in rock and roll.”

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And if ever we needed a new blast of that rebellious energy, we need it now. Penny Arcade may be a pensioner now; but like many members of the postwar generation, she remembers the taste of freedom, and longs for it still. And if ever those benighted women-only carriages are introduced, I hope that she will be here in Britain, leading the charge; while an army of angry women of all ages occupy the trains, and tell the nation’s growing ranks of control-freaks and securocrats exactly what to do with their creeping Victorian values, and their infatuation not with the future, but with a return to an ever more reactionary past.